Monday, April 21, 2014

My Russian Diary - Odessa at the Black Sea

Odessa @ the Black Sea - June 24-29, 1984

Odessa, the port city at the Black Sea was our last out-of-town trip. In a few weeks, our 4-month training will end and Odessa seemed the perfect place for culmination. It was late June and summer made people go out and relish the sun after months of cold and snow. As expected, Odessa’s beaches were swarmed with people.

Back then, I haven’t known nor heard about Odessa. I have heard about the Black Sea and had even wondered why it was called “Black”. But I haven’t known its strategic geographical relevance to Russia (or the Soviet Union then) and to Europe and the Middle East. But our almost a week visit to this city, declared by the Soviet government as a “hero city” in recognition of its role during The Great Patriotic War ( as they called World War II), made a lasting impression  of how beautiful  the city was. Rich in history and culture, it was USSR’s important   gateway to the Western World via the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean.  This I further confirmed when two of our Egyptian co-trainees opted to travel home by ship from Odessa instead of joining us to Moscow and connect to Cairo.

Perhaps  the  most memorable experience I had was when we watched a ballet show at the famed Odessa Ballet and Opera House. Russia was and perhaps still is tops in ballet and their Ballet and Opera Houses were just magnificent. We were seated at the exclusive balcony section at the side near the stage, a good full view of the whole opera house with those magnificent chandeliers hanging over. It was my first and so far the only time I have ever watched a ballet show performed by world renowned ballet dancers.  Weeks  later, in Moscow, while in transit waiting for our flight back home, we visited the ultimate ballet house, the Bolshoi Theatre, but unfortunately we were not able to watch a show. It was then closed for maintenance.

Another memorable experience we had was our attempt to dip and bathe in the Black Sea. The sun has been up for weeks, and daily, multitudes of people of all ages and shapes, swarmed the beaches, enjoying summer. But as we jumped to the waters, suddenly we froze. The Black Sea waters  was still freezing cold- to us. That abruptly ended our swimming adventure at the famous Black Sea.

One night too, while listening to a Russian band and drinking our usual Vodka, Cudra, our colleague from Mozambique, told me he thought he saw “your Philippine countryman “ at the lobby. I disagreed and told him “there are no Filipinos here for what will he be doing here in this faraway land?”. For almost 4 months, we haven’t had encountered any Filipino nor had we heard any news about our country. A little while later, I went to the comfort room. And just as I was fixing my hair in front of a mirror, 2 guys of my size and color came in. They didn’t look at me but instead passed by where I stood and in a voice loud enough for me to hear, uttered the sweetest word I haven’t heard in a long while- KABAYAN. It was their way of testing whether a stranger is a Filipino or not. How happy and glad I was to meet them; one was from Ozamis and the other from Cebu. They were Filipino seamen and their ship was docked at Odessa port to unload and backload cargos. Later, when I returned to the bar, I told my Mozambique friend about it. His reply: I told you so!    

Sunday, April 20, 2014

My Russian Diary - Day 27

Day 27 – April 15, Sunday, Kiev

The Aeroflot plane was small with 28  passengers only and no check-in baggage. Arrived in Kiev in one hour. First impression of the city was good. Clean, inclined streets, more beautiful buildings. Checked in at Hotel Ukraine. From the outside, it looks simple but inside, it was magnificent. After check-in and breakfast, off we go for sight-seeing. This is the first order of the day in all our travels in different places.

Kiev, the old and third largest city of Soviet Union is like San Francisco, hilly. It is the capital of Ukraine, second largest and most prosperous of the 15 republics. It has many parks, 150 in all and many memorials and monuments. Soviet cities are known for this. I guess this makes up for lack of entertainment places. Many streets were made of cobble stones. Visited the Arc of Friendship, site where Kiev was founded. Panoramic view overlooking the famous Dneiper River. Visited Prince Andrew Cathedral, a 100,000 capacity sports complex, the grave of the unknown soldier, Czar’s Palace, Ukrainian Parliament, Chekovsky University, etc. Afternoon, we were at the Exposition of Industry in Ukraine – a 300 hectare pavilion telling the story of the place. Soviets are particular of this. They have a very rich and ancient culture and they really preserved it.

My Russian Diary - Day 3

Day 4 - March 23, Zaporozhye

Woke up at 6:30. Medical check-up is at 8. Not feeling well. Vodka and champagne last night. Outside, I could see only  few people on the streets.

At 8, people started to go out. Realized  that drivers of buses and trolley cars were women. Quite amusing. And hotel utility people were also women, mostly of late age and fat. But they were nice, cheerful and honest people. We call them our dear “babushkas”.

A funny thing happened during my check-up. Just when the lady doctor placed her stethoscope on my breast, my Citizen Ana-Digi watch chimed. Both the doctor and Lyudmilla, our interpreter, were stunned, the stethoscope falling out of the doctor’s hand. This technology has not yet come to their place. They could only laugh at their ignorance.

Went back to the hotel at 4 pm. Café and restaurant were closed. Had to go out with Cudra ( from Mozambique) to take some food. Found few eating places but many people were falling in line. This is a common thing here, queuing in cafes, open markets, shops, everywhere. Every morning at the hotel, we fall in line for breakfast. And the pace was so slow. Finally, found one place but there was nothing to choose. Service and quality are visibly absent here.

That night, Mumtaz (from Pakistan) brought us to a party inside the hotel in celebration of Pakistan Day. Many Pakistanis came, mostly exchange students  and  worker trainees. Champagne and vodka flowed and we drunk a lot. My Philip Morris and Marlboro were favourites. Russian cigarettes were lousy. And people danced with gusto. And how they love foreign music. Old Western favourites-Yesterday, Feelings, Ebony and Ivory were hits. Just before midnight, the party broke up. All activities here stop at midnight.  Amused at everybody hurrying down the streets while militiamen scour the area, seeing everything’s in order and everybody leaves the place. Even drunk people follow to the letter this regulation, without question. And to think that their militiamen carry no guns-only radio and ‘’batuta’’. But I observed them to be strict but disciplined too, and respectful. Call that fear or respect of the law, but to my mind this is so far the safest place I’ve been to and known.

Finished the night with more Vodka at Muminagic’s ( from Yugoslavia) room.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

My Russian Diary - Day 2

Day 2 - March 21

It was already 7:00 AM and the city seems still quiet. Below, only a few people can be seen walking on the streets.  Eleazar, my classmate from Peru, told me last night that only few people are seen outside because most of them pass the subways—the Metro, they call it, those marvelous underground structures used as shelter during the last world war.

It seems to me Moscow is peaceful, not hectic like Manila. I saw only a  few cars  and  traffic was nowhere to be seen, although from time to time, cars have also to stop at street lights. Quite orderly. Buildings were more of less of the same design. Like boxes, especially the apartment houses.

It was still snowing when we came down the hotel. Oleg fetched us for our flight to Zaporozhye. There were no porters at the airport nor at the hotel. We were  left on our own to carry our luggage. How my shoulders ached. Surprised that there were only four of us in the pre-departure area. Later we learned that foreigners have separate terminal areas. Upon boarding, we were again whisked to the ramp separately. The Russian passengers boarded only when we were already settled on our seats. And there were no seat numbers.

Then Zaporozhye--our home city for the next four months, a major industrial city of the Ukraine region. We stopped in the middle of a big airport, doubling as an air base. At the far other side are hangars of the MIG fighter planes. Temperature was -10 degrees C and first time I stepped on melting ice; I had no hat nor gloves. The winter wind was terrible. I couldn’t understand why the baggage claim area was outside the terminal.

Settled at the 10th and last floor of Hotel Zaporozhye (In Tourist Hotel) - the best in the center of the city. Vladimir Soroko, our training director came up to welcome us. Went down at 9PM  with Jorge and Eleazar. The basement bar was full and noisy and there were many beautiful girls. Didn’t know what to drink. Finally, I decided to go back to my room and rest. Still a long way to enjoy.

My Russian Diary - Day 1

Thirty years ago at about this time, I arrived in Moscow for a 4-month technical training in steel. It was  then called the Union Of Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR), which I later learned was composed of 15 republics. It was also named  Soviet Union. That period was Chernenko’s era, who took over after the death of  long time leader Brezhnev. A few years later, Gorbachev took charge, introduced  “glasnost” and “perestroika” and the rest was history.

I was then a Senior  Supervisor at Quality Assurance  Dept. Of National Steel Corporation in Iligan City  and together with Mike Uy, also a Senior Supervisor at Hot Mill Operations, we represented the Philippines in  the 27th UNIDO/UNDP  In
- Plant Training  for Iron and Steel Engineers from March 19 to July 19, 1984 at Zaporozhstal Iron and Steel Works in Zaporozhye, Ukraine. While based in Ukraine, our group of 17 engineers from 10 developing countries travelled far and wide the former Soviet territories, by bus, by train, by plane. From the capital Kiev, Krivoi Rog, Zdhanov, Donetsk, Boronets, in the heartland of Ukraine to the western port city of Odessa in the Black Sea, to the Russian region of Liepetsk, Cherepovets, Leningrad in the north and the capital Moscow, we saw its  vastness and  the richness in resources, culture, and history. Most of all, we saw and learned who they are, how different they were, and how they lived in that time.

I first published excerpts of my dairy in the NSC News, the official magazine of National Steel Corporation in 1989, the year Soviet Union was disintegrated into independent states. The recent incidents of conflicts which started last year in Kiev and spilled over to the Crimea region in the Black Sea and now the crisis in the border areas like Donetsk,once again brought back vivid memories of my memorable stay in that wonderful faraway place.

Day 1- March 20, Moscow

“Ladies and Gentlemen, in just a short while, we are landing at the Shereyetmevo International Airport. Time is now exactly 7 in the morning. Ground temperature is 14 degrees below zero”, came the Aeroflot’s stewardess’ final announcement. Suddenly, almost everybody stood up and reached for their overcoats, hats, and gloves. I remained seated, glued to the window. Below, everything was white. I could see Russian airport personnel standing dutifully on guard, in thick fur hats and overcoats, the read insignia blazingly visible from above. Beautiful-just like in the movies.

It was a bitter winter initiation for me. All along the drive from the airport to my hotel, the Rossia Hotel, reportedly Europe’s largest with 3,000 rooms, strategically just a stone’s throw away from the Kremlin Red Square, I have to raise both my feet to fight of the cold seemingly penetrating through my bones. I should have known better, I thought. Napoleon and Hitler learned this the hard way, and with it shattered their dreams of world conquest.’’Mr. Oleg (my guide/interpreter) but I thought it’s already spring time’’, I protested. “Mr. Delid, to the Ukrainians, it’s still winter time. To the Muscovites, it’s now spring time.’’ My first lesson here: for me, they’re just one and the same—Russians.

I slept practically all day. I left Manila the day before with stopovers in Singapore and New Delhi and the long journey took its toll. And for the first time, I learned that Manila time was 5 hours in advance.  The cold weather all the more made it conducive to sleeping. Later, had dinner of chicken and bread with my two Peruvian classmates in one of the hotel’s many restaurants overlooking Red Square. Against the backdrop of the magnificent Kremlin and Lenin Mausoleum dutifully manned by the Red Guards, we toasted for our safe arrival and for the good things to come.